Reflections on the year of COVID
Like many people, my son cannot wait for 2020, the “worst year ever,” to end. I will let historians debate whether 2020 qualifies for this title. I will reflect on the aspects of COVID-19 making for such a dismal year and whether the hardships were avoidable.
Prosperity and progress have significantly increased U.S. life expectation, from 50 years in 1900 to almost 80 now. Demographic analysis attributes much of this to an increased proportion of persons living to 70 or 80. Life expectation upon reaching 80 has changed relatively little.
In short, we have tremendously reduced premature deaths. Some of this has been through vaccinations for childhood diseases. The larger portion is fewer deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and smoking. Most Americans now experience retirement and know their grandchildren as adults.
Persons over age 50 (and especially 70) with “comorbidities” are the overwhelming victims of COVID-19. Comorbidities are conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes that medicine helps people manage, enabling longer lives. COVID has undone much of this progress.
Americans have also experienced a loss of autonomy. How we face risks of death is a major part of life. Freedom means we make these choices for ourselves. Some people enjoy risky activities like skiing, skydiving, and riding motorcycles, while others drive the safest cars available and are germophobes. Judging anyone’s choices is pointless; adults can and should make choices for themselves. With minimal precautions, the daredevil’s risky activities do not endanger the cautious.
Government policies took this autonomy away from us. To some degree this is unavoidable because in a pandemic one person’s risk taking can infect others, in contrast with cases where participants endanger only themselves.
Yet having decisions on questions like whether seeing family in person worth a risk of infection forced on us makes us feel less human, regardless of the health outcome. Politicians so often flouting the rules they forced on us rubs salt in the wound.
Political commands have bankrupted thousands of small businesses. Business owners have had their hopes and dreams, into which they have poured thousands of hours and their life savings, crushed. As Forbes columnist John Tamny observes, each successful small business adds something to our lives – a good or service not available in our community. The value created supports millions of jobs.
The pandemic was going to have significant economic impacts regardless of policy. For example, many people were going to shop more online and stop going to restaurants. Small businesses may have lost advantages from personal attention and service with virtual shopping. Yet closing “nonessential” businesses prevented owners from trying to navigate the new environment.
School closures disrupted education for millions, hitting low income and minority children hardest. The disruption will have impacts for years. Evidence now shows that schools are a small contributor to the spread of COVID-19, so while spring closures may have been unavoidable, closures are now self-inflicted harms.
Closing schools and daycares placed immense stress on families. Children have missed opportunities for socialization while parents have had to care for children. This burden has fallen heavily on low income families, whose jobs typically cannot be performed remotely. Over two million women have left the labor force since February (meaning they are no longer looking to work). The Center for American Progress warns that the pandemic could “set gender equity back a generation.”
Perhaps the saddest aspect of COVID has been its melding onto our preexisiting vicious partisan political divide. Stress, fear, and sorrow should bring forth compassion and empathy, not scolding and vitriol. On a positive note, millions of Americans have assisted those impacted by the virus and the lockdowns.
Science writer Matt Ridley is generally very positive; one of his books is titled “The Rational Optimist.” Early in the pandemic, he wrote “the hardships ahead will be like nothing we have ever known” and would test our civilization. Unfortunately, Mr. Ridley has proven prescient. While much of the pain was unavoidable, government policy has added to the human suffering.
Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.